Arabic belongs to the Semitic family of languages. Spoken languages in this family include Modern Hebrew, Amharic, Tigre, Tigrinya, Syriac, a few Aramaic dialects and Maltese. In the Arab world, 250 million speak Arabic as their native language. Worldwide, 1.2 billion Muslims use Arabic in their prayers and religious recitations. Arabic is also the liturgical language of many Eastern Christian churches.
For practical purposes, we might divide Arabic into three varieties:
Classical Arabic is the oldest type of Arabic that is studied widely. It is the language of the Qur’an and texts from the classical age of the Islamic empire.
Modern Standard Arabic or al-fuSHaa is a direct descendant of classical Arabic and is now the language of elevated discourse or correspondence, contemporary literature and the mass media.
Colloquial Arabic, or caammiyya, refers to the regional dialects used in everyday discourse and popular culture.
Students choose to study Arabic for a variety of reasons, for instance as part of their course of study or because they are interested in the people and cultures of the Arabic-speaking world. Arabic can be useful to students with a background in political science or international studies because of the urgent demand for Arabic in contemporary world affairs. Some students take Arabic to help them get jobs with the U.S. government or non-government agencies operating in the Arab world. Students of Arab descent often take Arabic to better understand their heritage and to learn the language of a parent or grandparent. Muslim students often take Arabic to read the Qur’an and other religious texts. Learning Arabic provides access to a vast body of literature and art and fosters the ability to interact with other Arabic speakers.
Interest in the Arabic language and Arab studies has risen dramatically since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Enrollment in Arabic courses at many American universities has skyrocketed, and interest in Arabic focused study abroad programs has also increased. Not everyone who studies Arabic will make a career out of it, but even so it can be an invaluable tool for intercultural communication and understanding.
The most useful tool for overcoming the inevitable challeneges of learning Arabic is a deep and abiding interest in the language and culture. To say that learning Arabic is no harder for native English speakers than learning Spanish would probably be false advertising. In a common scale that groups languages according to the number of contact hours required to achieve advanced proficiency, Arabic falls in category 4, the highest level, along with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Hindi. This means that it takes longer to acquire the same level of proficiency in Arabic than it would in Spanish or French. Arabic is relatively difficult because it requires learning a new script, new consonant sounds, a different syntax and an extensive vocabulary with few cognates.
Despite its difficulty, Arabic is not the exclusive realm of elite students or the linguistically gifted. Arabic is absolutely doable and can be an enjoyable challenge for any student. Even students with average native talent can be very successful in learning Arabic.
(Please note that Arabic is not offered as a major or a minor at Hamilton)